WASHINGTON — John McCain emerged from Florida Tuesday as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, now poised to complete a remarkable comeback just months after being written off as politically dead.
The Arizona senator still faces competition from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and their clash could remain bitter, with Romney ready to write more personal checks to keep the campaign going. A wing of the party that loathes McCain could rally to Romney as the last best chance to stop their maverick nemesis.
But McCain's victory in Florida's primary Tuesday firmly established him as the favorite headed into a 21-state, coast-to-coast showdown on Feb. 5 and to go on to win the party nod.
McCain took the lead for the first time in delegates needed to win the nomination at next summer's Republican National Convention. With all of Florida's 57 delegates, McCain had 93, Romney had 59 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had 40.
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But McCain's real edge is how he stands headed into the contests next Tuesday when more than 1,000 delegates will be awarded, many of them in winner-take-all states. Winning many of those states would put a candidate well on the way to the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination.
He can claim the advantage thanks to several factors made clear in Florida:
_ His strong appeal to security-minded voters;
_ His ability to blunt Romney's pitch on pocketbook concerns; they split economy voters;
_ A calendar of big states where McCain already has the advantage;
_ The defeat of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and likely McCain edge winning over his supporters. Giuliani was preparing to drop out and endorse McCain on Wednesday, according to several reports.
Giuliani, who once led in national polls and raised top-tier cash, bet it all on an unusual strategy that amounted to retreat. He pulled back from competition in Iowa, then in New Hampshire, then in South Carolina.
But while he camped out in sunny Florida, his rivals grabbed not only delegates but headlines in the first contests. Starved of victories, his money dried up. Starved of headlines, he had no free media coverage to compensate, and his political support dried up.
All of it comes just months after McCain appeared to be finished, his second shot at the presidency slipping from his grasp. His support in polls dropped, his fund-raising was abysmal, and he had to lay off much of his campaign staff.
But he came back, thanks in large part to the apparent military success of the surge of additional troops to Iraq, something he had pushed at political risk when the Bush administration and Republican boosters on talk radio worked hard to stifle such dissent.
Romney tried to take advantage of the rising concerns about the economy, pitching his background as a business executive and reminding voters that McCain more than once has told reporters he doesn't understand the economy as well as he does foreign policy.
McCain played hard to security-minded voters, his strength. But he also stressed his newfound commitment to the Bush tax cuts (he opposed them in Congress) and to curbing spending as his answer to economic woes.
The economy dominated the Florida vote — named by four out of ten as their top concern in exit polls — and economy voters split almost evenly between McCain and Romney.
McCain also stands to gain as Giuliani appears headed out.
McCain already leads in several delegate-rich states, including his home state of Arizona, California, and Illinois. The Florida win could boost those leads.
He's also well ahead of Romney in the Northeast states of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, with his only competition coming from soon-to-depart Giuliani.
McCain could pick up the bigger share of Giuliani voters, which would give him a further boost in the Northeast.
To be sure, Romney remains a force.
Foremost, he's worth more than $100 million and is willing to keep lending more money to his campaign at a time when cash to buy TV commercials is critical. McCain needs to raise more money fast - though the Florida win could help him do that.
Also, Romney leads in such Feb. 5 states as Colorado and Massachusetts.
And, he could gain support from partisan Republicans who view McCain as an unreliable ally, particularly in fighting illegal immigration.
Beyond McCain and Romney, Giuliani's finish in Florida finished him.
Soon to be a footnote to history, Giuliani's ill-fated campaign might best be remembered for a quote that will go down in political annals as the bumper sticker for hubris.
Asked how he could withstand the momentum of someone else winning in those other states, a Giuliani aide last fall responded boldly, "we're momentum proof." They weren't.